God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla

Kratos emerged onscreen, rowing a boat through a mysterious fog in the livestream of The Game Awards in early December, 2023. I heard thousands of shocked fans in the theater erupt into applause and smiled, knowing that thousands more were doing the same around the world. I felt a sense of mischievous euphoria, witnessing the worldwide gaming community learn about a secret I had been working on. (The last time I felt anything approaching this euphoria was in 2016, at the E3 presentation when God of War was first announced, and I conducted a live orchestra and choir in a rousing rendition of my new theme.) Valhalla would prove to combine intensely satisfying, procedurally generated combat experience with a thoughtful narrative that provided an emotional epilogue to the character arc of series protagonist Kratos.

I worked on Valhalla for four months, a short turnaround given that I toiled on the score for the main game for four years. Given the timeline, I brought in my team of composers at Sparks & Shadows to help me, including composers Sam Ewing and Omer Ben-Zvi. Sam and Omer both worked closely with me on God of War and God of War Ragnarök. No one knew my score better than these two, and they were thrilled to join me on this project.

In our first creative conference with Santa Monica Studio, including Valhalla director Bruno Velazquez, I was surprised to learn the game’s narrative would focus on Kratos coming to terms with his traumatic past from the Greek saga of games that preceded my involvement in the series. Through the narrative device of Valhalla, as conceived by the game’s writers, Kratos would confront his painful memories in a visceral, physical sense, facing environments and characters from his past.

RETURN TO GREECE

SPOILERS AHEAD! As a long-time fan of the original game series, I was thrilled for the opportunity to be part of a story that reexamines the Greek era of Kratos’ past. During the gripping narrative of God of War and God of War Ragnarök, the Norse saga, Kratos’ Greek past remained vital yet subtextual, referenced without being relived. The stories focused on his relationships with a myriad of new characters, including his son Atreus. By the end of Ragnarök, each of these relationships had come to a point of stability, for better or worse. Valhalla offered the chance to explore Kratos’ Greek past through the lens of his current experiences, earning what I hoped would be a fittingly emotional epilogue for God of War Ragnarök.

These narrative references to the older games raised an obvious question: should the score for Valhalla integrate any thematic musical material from the Greek saga of previous God of War games? The dev team and I felt strongly that our new score should do exactly that.

It wasn’t always so. In the early days of scoring 2018’s God of War, I raised this very question with director Cory Barlog. There exists in that game a memorable moment where Kratos finds an ancient Greek urn in Týr’s temple that depicts him in paint as the bloodthirsty god slayer he was. I drafted two versions of that scene, one which directly quoted a haunted version of Gerard Marino’s memorable God of War Greek fanfare, and a second draft that quoted a wistful statement of my new Kratos theme. Cory and I discussed the two versions at length, and we came to the conclusion that the version with my new theme was more emotionally effective for this particular story moment, even though we both loved the Marino melody. Like the entire 2018 game itself, that scene is ultimately not about Kratos’ past, but about him hiding that past from his son. In the scene, the music had to support the moment when Kratos quickly and shamefully discards the urn when his son approaches. This idea – Kratos’s struggle with his past – was our north star for that entire game’s score. Every time Kratos talked about his past, it was in the context of his internal conflict over whether or not to be honest with his son. The game was, in short, not about his past at all. The game was about his relationship with Atreus.

After that, I hoped I would still find the opportunity at some point to incorporate music from the GReek saga God of War games, but I knew I simply had to wait until the right opportunity presented itself. As it turned out, I had to wait for Valhalla. In Valhalla, Kratos faces his past but still retains his wisdom and experience gained over the Norse saga. To reflect this, I felt it important that gamers hear layers of adaptive combat music integrating the sounds and themes of the classic Greek saga, but blended into the Norse-influenced musical language I had developed. We did not want to simply regurgitate music from the old games. Instead, we hoped to honor the legacy of those games by merging that iconic music with my own.

After our initial creative kick-off on Valhalla, I met with Sparks & Shadows composers Sam Ewing and Omer Ben-Zvi, to divide the major musical moments into three batches, so we could all start composing right away. I instructed Sam to tackle the combat music that referenced the classic Greek saga, while Omer sketched the Týr scenes, all while I focused on the emotional final cinematic scenes and end credits.

Sam and I spent a great deal of time listening closely to the classic God of War scores, marking quotations and passages we felt would resonate with fans. “The modern Kratos we have come to know is introspective, with a dynamic range of emotions, and Bear’s themes reflect this,” Sam reflected recently. “I wanted to bring back the single-minded anger that the old-school Kratos embodies. Entire brass sections, string sections, and choir sections play and sing in unison at the ceiling of their dynamic range, moving through Phrygian melodies in a muscular and single-minded way. Sometimes the music is original, my own exploration of this world as I compose, and in other sections I methodically make clear statements of Gerard Marino’s themes to give the player pure doses of dopamine that bring them straight back to the old games.”

Sam went on, “In trying to tell a musical story, simply stating Bear’s Kratos theme, even in the same muscular, unison fashion, immediately invokes a new rousing and heroic feeling. Suddenly the player is fighting mythological creatures with a newfound feeling of triumph. The modal differences between the two themes (Gerard’s theme is in Phrygian, while Bear’s is in the traditional Aeolian) gives them complete emotional separation. There’s an organic and easy nature to the way they work together. A lot can be achieved with these two themes that have so much history and meaning to the players.”

My music for the Norse saga understandably focused on folk instruments from that region, and choirs singing in Old Norse. To get the iconic Greek sound we knew fans would love, we moved our focus south, towards the Mediterranean. I was always struck by how the classic Greek God of War games used Middle Eastern percussion and soloists. Rattling frame drums, piercing dumbeks, splashing chang changs, and tambourines, all evoke a very specific regional sound. Combining these percussion instruments with other soloists from the geographic area, including the Armenian duduk and the Greek bouzuki, we strove to capture the feeling of the Greek saga, even for moments in which we were not directly quoting music from the original games.

THE LAST NEW CHARACTER THEME

When I wrote the score for God of War Ragnarök, I crafted about a dozen new themes for characters and places. However, gamers never heard a theme for the enigmatic Norse god, Týr. The reason is obvious by the end of the game: the Týr that Kratos spends time with is not the real Týr. Aside from a few brief dialog moments with the newly released Týr hidden in post-game maps, Valhalla offers our first opportunity to know the real Týr. So, the dev team and I all felt it was time for Týr to get his own musical theme.

Writing the Týr theme presented a challenge, because we wanted it to convey power and wisdom, yes, but the theme ultimately needed to function as a climactic boss battle combat cue as well. The theme had to intimidate the player, without suggesting Týr is an evil person. Omer Ben-Zvi, from Sparks & Shadows, was incredibly helpful in developing the Týr theme into an idea that could work in these diverse contexts.

“Although Týr is the final boss in the DLC, he is truly not an enemy of Kratos,” Omer recalled. “We knew that his theme needed to bring forth an intimidating, commanding presence that could carry the boss fight, while at the same time not feel villainous. As Týr is the Norse god of war, we were inspired to use a musical palette for him that is similar to Kratos’. This primarily included low male choir, brass, and strings, which would at times be complemented with familiar soloists such as the Hardanger fiddle. We wanted this theme to feel iconic and memorable for players, and to fit in as a natural addition to the games.”

Omer went on, “One of the most interesting things about Týr is his knowledge of fighting styles that he has developed throughout his journeys to other mythologies. Each time Kratos faces him, Týr reveals a new weapon and martial arts form from one of three different cultures: Aztec, Egyptian, and Japanese. We wanted to complement this by adding a unique musical representation to each style. For the Aztec style, we augmented the score to incorporate occasional pan flute textures. For the Egyptian style, we blended in energetic Middle Eastern percussion and oud performances. For the Japanese style, we supported the music with sporadic Shakuhachi phrases. Showcasing how well-versed Týr is as a fighter by musically recognizing his knowledge of these styles helped define the kind of character: a wise and experienced mentor – and a force to be reckoned with.”

THE CLIMACTIC CINEMATIC

While Sam and Omer worked on their respective music, I turned my focus towards the game’s emotional climax. In the final cinematic of God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla, Kratos faces off against his younger self. Surprisingly, this conflict does not play out in an earth-shattering battle, but in a soul-searching monologue, as Kratos battles his past self metaphorically. The scene is among the most emotionally intense in a series packed with emotionally intense scenes.

I have been writing music for this character for the last eight years, and now I had just one more scene in which to offer my musical concluding arguments for his emotional self-examination. This cinematic is an expertly written, acted, and shot scene that involves relatively little dialog, leaving a large blank canvas for lyrical music: the type of scene that fires up my imagination. However, I could not help but feel a self-imposed, crushing pressure to write a cue worthy of the end of Kratos’ arc.

As always with God of War, I had the strength of the material to inspire and guide me. Due to our intense schedule, I did not yet have rough animation for this scene, so I was instead writing music while watching the raw mo-cap footage, witnessing the brilliant Christopher Judge in the flesh. Even though he was covered with mo-cap dots and the weird body suit outfit, I felt the emotion emanating from his eyes, and the pain and revelation from his voice. I have gotten to know Chris quite well over the years, so seeing how much this scene meant to him helped fuel my creative fire.

Since Kratos was facing down his younger self, the scene presented the perfect opportunity to set two musical themes, one for his past and one for his present, side by side. To do this, I wanted to incorporate one iconic melody from the Greek saga, and I chose Gerard Marino’s iconic fanfare theme from the classic God of War games.

This is not a story of modern Kratos defeating younger Kratos. Instead, Valhalla offers a story of self-forgiveness, of moving forward. To represent this, I first stated Marino’s iconic theme in a lonely, ominous solo duduk when young Kratos is revealed. Then, orchestra and choir offer a counterargument of my Norse saga Kratos theme.

After a series of musical clashes, the DLC, indeed Kratos’ entire character arc, fades to credits with a pastoral arrangement of both themes intertwined, for which I closely wove Marino’s theme with my own Kratos theme from the Norse saga. Here, phrases from both the Greek and Norse sagas alternate seamlessly and peacefully. The music of the Norse saga concludes with a pastoral, gentle revoicing of my three note Kratos theme. These are the same notes that first thundered through the theater at E3 in 2016 when the older Kratos of the Norse saga was revealed to the world; they now echo serenely away at the end of Valhalla.

SOUNDTRACK ALBUM

I am thrilled that the score for God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla was nominated for an International Film Music Critics Association award for Best Video Game Score, as well as the ASCAP Composer’s Choice Award for Video Game Score of the Year. The soundtrack album is available now on all major streaming platforms.

THE END OF THE NORSE SAGA

Eight years ago, I experimented with incorporating one of the classic God of War Greek themes into a dramatic underscore cue for the new Norse God of War. While that initial idea ultimately went unused, it sparked in my mind a gnawing idea that, at some point, I might find the opportunity to quote classic God of War musical themes that predate my involvement in the series. I worked and waited, until finally God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla offered the perfect chance. Here, I would not just quote a melodic fragment in a dialog cue, but would instead place these classic musical ideas front and center, at times clashing with, at times harmonizing with, my music for the God of War Norse saga.

Scoring God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla, with support from my talented composers and crew at Sparks & Shadows, was an incredibly satisfying experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to write the last musical chapter for Kratos in the Norse saga, to pay homage to the great scores that came before me, and to be a small part of this passionate team that made what I suspect will be remembered as a vital piece of the God of War saga.

-Bear McCreary

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